Disability Access Is Improving Across Morningside Campus

Editor's note:

Columbia University is committed to improving accessibility through a multi-year initiative to adapt the Beaux Arts Morningside campus of the 20th century to the accessibility needs of the 21st. In honor of International Day of People with Disabilities, we highlight the progress Columbia University Facilities and Operations has made in improving accessibility while maintaining—and enhancing—the historic character of the campus design.

Georgette Jasen
Noah Lichtman
December 03, 2019

Until recently, someone in a wheelchair or with limited mobility trying to enter Havemeyer Hall had to detour through the Northwest Corner Building 300 yards to the north, take an elevator to the ninth floor, then follow a 200-foot walkway through Chandler Hall to arrive, at last, at Havemeyer. Whew.

As of March 12, a newly installed ramp leads to an accessible entrance 30 feet west of the building’s main door, making this byzantine route a thing of the past. It is the University's latest disability-access project, part of a multiyear initiative to adapt the Beaux Arts campus of the 20th century to the accessibility needs of the 21st.

“Too often obscured within the beauty of Columbia’s historic Morningside campus is the inherent challenge of accessing buildings constructed a century ago, along with navigating the change in elevation of the terrain between 114th and 120th streets,” said David M. Greenberg, the executive vice president of Facilities and Operations. “We are committed to continuing to address those challenges as we improve accessibility across campus.”

Over the past six years, the University has undertaken a steady number of projects to that end. One of the most visible was the 2017 restoration of Butler Plaza, which created sloping pathways to the library’s main entrance and an entrance ramp and stairs between Butler Lawn and the plaza. The project also added benches along the lawn’s perimeter, new lighting, technical infrastructure for Wi-Fi on the South Lawn and improved drainage.

Last summer, the lawn between the Mathematics building and Havemeyer Plaza was dug up and a step-free pathway with brick pavers and granite curbing consistent with campus architecture was created. The project included enhanced lighting, Wi-Fi access and preserved the oldest tree on campus—the more than 120-year-old sycamore in front of Mathematics.

“With exterior projects like the Mathematics pathway, the Butler Plaza project, and a masonry ramp adjacent to Hamilton connecting College Walk to lower campus, we are able to maintain— and even enhance—the historic character of the campus design while substantially improving disability access,” said Greenberg

The improvements are inside and out. Last spring, a new wheelchair lift at the Mathematics building connected the campus-level vestibule to the third floor, providing direct access to the elevators. The building’s historic entry doors also have been retrofitted with an accessible push panel for opening. On the other side of Amsterdam Avenue, a new lift now connects the street level lobby of the International Affairs Building on 118th Street to the atrium level, which houses student lounges and an auditorium. Before the lift was installed, building visitors with limited mobility had to take a circuitous route or navigate seven steps to get from one area to the other.

Since 2013, approximately 50 restrooms in 40 buildings have been upgraded or converted to provide disability access. The wheelchair lift in Lewisohn Hall was replaced, and accessible dorm rooms, some with private bathrooms, have been created across campus.

Other projects included the installation of automated doors at building entrances and along accessible routes within them, way-finding signage, classroom upgrades and improvements to some outdoor ramps. An email alert system now warns of outages and other events that affect disability access.

And within the last year, a limited-use elevator was installed in Pupin Hall between the building’s top two floors, providing access to events and departmental offices on the 14th floor—the hub of Astronomy Department activity.

The new Havemeyer ramp could inform future designs for the remaining McKim, Mead & White buildings on campus. Future projects will focus on improving accessibility outdoors across campus, such as between College Walk and Low Plaza; adding more accessible rooms and features in undergraduate residence halls; and improving entryway access to other buildings. Many of those projects require feasibility, design and engineering studies before construction can begin.

“It’s encouraging to see Columbia create long-lasting, permanent physical changes to improve disability access on campus,” said Gordon Slater (SOA’19), the University Senate representative for School of the Arts, who uses a wheelchair. “The University needs these kinds of structural changes in order to build a more diverse community.”